F.W. Murnau’s heart-melting, spellbindingly shot melodrama ensured that the silent era went out with a bang, and the primal story works on you from the start: A city girl (Livingston) in a flapper cloche seduces a married peasant gent (O’Brien), whispering murder in regard to his bun-haired wifey (Gaynor). When the country boy balks, he and his shaken spouse embark on a trip in the pinwheeling metropolis, their bond renewed yet ultimately haunted by his earlier dark visions.
The German master had the full resources of Fox at his disposal, and it was no folly: Every inch of both the city and village sets is freighted with feeling and lit with genius, courtesy of cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss. Traffic-jamming embraces, bull-in-a-china-shop visits to the barber and photo studio, a full-fledged Jazz Age amusement park—the filmmakers turn the couple’s journey through reconciliation (and urban landscapes) into a palpable experience. The camera moves, the earth moves; here is stylization, on par with the best of German Expressionism, that draws you in and makes for essential cinema. No less than Orson Welles and John Ford admired what Murnau accomplished with this Best Picture winner; the director would be be dead from a car accident at 42, but he left a fitting memorial to the art form’s pre-talkie age.—Nicolas Rapold